Three Republican challengers are working to unseat Rep. Renee Ellmers in the state’s 2nd Congressional District, with some seeking to capitalize on Ellmers’ unwanted push into the national spotlight in the past week.
Her competition in a crowded primary are three Republicans who all bill themselves as “true conservatives,” calling Ellmers a too-moderate Republican who has adopted a Washington agenda and wants to bring it to North Carolina.
Members of Congress are on a break this week, and Ellmers has been moving around the district. But she has been declining most interview requests. One of her opponents said a GOP meeting this week included a prohibition on video or audio recordings in what appeared to be an “act of censorship made at the request of the Ellmers camp.”
Ellmers’ staff has been seeking to shield her from questions about an uncorroborated Internet rumor that suggested she had been in an inappropriate relationship with U.S. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California. McCarthy was in line to become speaker of the House.
The rumor caught fire after a letter of warning from a fellow North Carolinian, U.S. Rep. Walter Jones, asked leadership candidates to step aside if they have committed embarrassing “misdeeds” or had “skeletons in their closets.”
McCarthy’s abrupt withdrawal from the speaker’s race turned a spotlight on Ellmers, too. Both Ellmers and McCarthy are married.
Ellmers has denied any affair, and says she’s been “targeted by completely false accusations and innuendo.” Her lawyer sent a “cease and desist” letter to the rumor’s originator, a website based in California.
Still, the unsubstantiated talk has given ammunition to some of her challengers, who all said they entered the race because Ellmers has strayed too far left from the conservative path of those who elected her.
She was in the national spotlight in January, too, over her role in stalling abortion legislation. Republicans who identify as pro-life were outraged. Ellmers defended her action, saying the bill was weak with major flaws.
Rumors fueling primary campaign
Ellmers declined repeated requests to discuss the rumors.
Ellmers appeared on a WFNC radio show early in the week and described what has happened as a side of politics that “rears its ugly head.”
“It’s unfortunately part of the deal that you expose yourself to when you run for office,” Ellmers said.
Her spokesman, Patrick Sebastian, said Ellmers and her husband are known and trusted by people in the district, which stretches from Fayetteville and Dunn in the east to Asheboro and the edge of High Point in the west. It includes Fort Bragg and parts of Apex and Cary.
“People are sick and tired of some of the media, and a lot of the career politicians that like to spread false rumor and gossip to hurt people,” Sebastian said.
That hasn’t kept two of her challengers from referencing it, with indications that it won’t die quickly. They said the timing of McCarthy’s withdrawal is suspicious, given how close he was to securing the speakership. And they said they were aware of the rumor before last week.
Frank Roche, who is running against Ellmers a second time, said his prayers go out to Ellmers during a difficult time. He said he heard the rumor at the end of last year.
“The timing of everything is suspicious,” he said citing the Jones letter and McCarthy stepping out.
Roche said that this week, he was at a GOP group’s meeting where Ellmers was a guest speaker and the audience was told of a ban on recordings.
“Since 2010, I have attended hundreds of meetings hosted by GOP groups, auxiliary groups, tea party groups, issue advocacy groups, think tanks, and nonprofits,” he said. “I never once heard such an instruction given.”
Kay Daly, who joined the race with a TV ad that shows her blasting a gun and hunting for a “Republican-in-Name-Only,” said she first heard the rumor in 2011 when her husband was working in Washington, D.C.
She said that although the allegation is tragic for the Ellmers family, North Carolina “has bigger problems.”
Still, Daly drew upon the rumor in describing how she would be different, emphasizing what she described as a more conservative approach.
“Fidelity matters to the platform,” Daly said.
She added: “I’m running against her because she has been unfaithful to her constituents.”
A third challenger, Jim Duncan, outgoing chairman of the Chatham County GOP, said his focus is on his own campaign to unseat Ellmers, and he did not address the rumors.
“Renee Ellmers’ strategy is to wait,” he said. “She has a problem in my district because her voting record favors Washington insiders over the people from her home district.”
Daly says the congresswoman votes like a liberal but talks like a conservative.
“There is D.C. Renee and North Carolina Renee,” she said.
State of the race
The Republican hopefuls in the 2nd District are actively spreading their messages of conservatism and busy raising campaign funds. They all say it’s going very well.
Roche had raised about $20,000 through September. Duncan has about $200,000 on hand. Daly shows no campaign-finance filings yet.
Ellmers reported raising about $700,000 in the same period, with about $400,000 cash on hand.
“While Renee is damaged by these stories, she has been raising money at a record pace,” Roche said.
Ellmers has been emphasizing her opposition to the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare, and her efforts to keep military ties strong in the district.
“The military community knows they have an ally in Renee Ellmers,” Sebastian said. “Without her diligence over the last year, Fort Bragg’s 440th Airlift Wing would have likely been shut down by the Obama administration.”
Response from the district
Voters interviewed in the district focused on whether Ellmers’ policy stances still alligned with theirs.
Larry Williford, owner of Williford’s Well Drilling, said he’s lived in Dunn all his life, voted for Ellmers and probably will again this March.
“She thinks along the lines I think most of the time,” he said Monday while pumping gas into a company truck.
Regenia Beasley of Dunn voted for Ellmers in the last election but has since become “disenchanted” with the whole election process.
“It seems like in politics when they want to get in, they tell you a good story, but they don’t do it. They spend a lot of money and time keeping their seats. That’s what disgusts me,” she said.
Asked if she would vote for Ellmers again, Beasley said she might not vote at all.
Donnie Wiggins of Broadway voted for Ellmers when she first ran for office in 2010 but said he no longer supports the representative.
“I didn’t like her first vote in 2011 when she sent out an email saying she got the best deal she thought she could get, and that’s the reason she voted,” Wiggins said. “That’s the wrong answer. She went on the platform with the tea party people. I feel like she has turned her back on the tea party. I’m not a tea party person, but I’m conservative. I didn’t like her conservative values. They don’t match up to mine.”